‘Virunga’ – the ‘Quondam’ chapter that lost its title!

In the spring of 2017, we went to Virunga, in the Eastern Congo. When I first told my wife where I wished us to go with our three teens, she threw the ‘proverbial canary’, but then, after she calmed down, she went straight to ‘Google’ !! As to our subsequent conversations…well, if you are up to speed with that part of the World, you can guess what kind of ‘conversations’ we had! Sara took the time she needed but when she finally got ‘on board’, we all sat around the round kitchen table to discuss this fairly big family (ad)venture. The ‘reading-up’ and bit of research was done, we got the jabs and the gear and even began a little training (to climb the 3,470m active volcano, Nyrogongo and sleep on top, and later to trek the 4,400m Mt. Mikeno in search of gorillas.) It was Easter and thus to expand the trip to over three weeks, we took the kids out of school one week either side…with the blessing of the Principle, Mr Coombs who said ‘…no doubt they’ll learn far more from this than time in class.’

On departure day, en route to Dublin airport, they were literally collected from school, tossing their bags in the boot, with waves from friends and a few envious geography teachers and off they went, cool as you like, from Bandon to central Africa. In Cork the car was dropped with a friend, we took the air-coach to Dublin, flew to Istanbul to spend the night. From there, seven-plus hours to Kampala, Uganda, then Kigali, Rwanda where we stayed a week. Onward by local bus, through extremely hilly country, to the busy border crossing between Gisenyi, Rw. and the million-plus city of Goma, D.R.Congo.

Both cities straddle the border and sit right on the scenic edge of the usually calm lake Kivu. Calm but potentially hazardous. A lake with its bottom full of volcanic gasses, sitting atop of a tectonic plate and butting-up to an active volcano, hmm! Those in the know describe Lake Kivu and/or its adjacent volcano, to be akin to a tick-tock-tick-tock waiting to go ‘boom’ – but then the same folk say much the same about the San Andreas fault in California.

There’s so much that could be written about the trip itself but suffice to say it was the best thing we ever did with-and-for our children and I think it left a hugely positive mark with them. But to go back a bit, if I may.  A year before and with everyone else in bed, I sat at the kitchen table, working on the penultimate chapter of ‘Quondam: Travels in a once World’. (At that time that chapter title was ‘Virunga’. After the trip I changed the title to ‘If our brother gorilla’s could speak’). Anyway, in the background, the kitchen radio was low – some late night debate about the financial costs of getting ones children through education. I’d heard it all before and was hardly listening but then, one contributor’s off-the-cuff remark made my ears prick. To paraphrase her comment, ‘if one spent a fraction of that ‘pot of education money‘ to bring one’s kids on a truly off-the-beaten trail adventure, what an experience that would be…it would be money well spent’. I stopped writing. In that instant a ‘crazy notion’ shot through my mind – ‘…bring ‘em to the Congo, of course. Why the hell not?’  And that, strange to say, was how the trip began.

For six months, prior to departure, I was in regular contact with Robert Williams, chief North American writer/blogger for the Virunga Park. In my gut I knew we would be fine but Robert merely confirmed that belief. There was nothing to fear, but then fear of the unknown is deep in us, and I had to convince my wife that all would well. As for our three teens, they couldn’t wait to get going and all the ‘hypotheticals’ and ‘what-ifs’ were never going to out-gun their bursting enthusiasm. The core reason to go was for them and at 18,16 and 15, (boy, girl, girl) I had absolutely no doubt that they were not only fit and hardy enough, but also mentally and emotionally robust and ready for whatever…and so, as I said, old boots were waxed, new boots broken-in, more gear purchased, research done and up and down early in the mornings we went, on our nearest half decent hill in Carrigfadda Hill, all to prepare for the most memorable ‘family trip’ we’ve ever done.